Tami Simon: You’re listening to “Insights at the Edge.” Today I speak with Rick Mendius. Rick is a neurologist and meditation teacher, and the cofounder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, along with Dr. Rick Hanson. Rick Mendius is the coauthor of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, as well as the Sounds True audio learning program Meditations to Change Your Brain. I spoke with Rick about the anatomy of the brain, and an emerging field called neurodharma. Welcome, Rick, to Insights at the Edge.
Rick Mendius: Thank you.
Tami Simon: Now, you’re a neurologist and also someone who’s a longtime meditator, and this convergence between neurology and meditation, what people are calling something like neurodharma?
Rick Mendius: Yes.
Tami Simon: What do we make of this? What is neurodharma?
Rick Mendius: Well, neurodharma for me is— It’s sort of developed as we’ve gotten in the neurology world more sophisticated in our ability to look at the brain in what we would call higher cortical function states, trying to discern, say for example, where language is located in a living brain, or what parts of the brain tend to be more active during visual-spatial processing, or verbal processing, or other more sophisticated behavioral things. People began exploring states that occurred in meditation and in contemplative traditions, and began finding that there’s actually physiological correlates to these states that were heretofore more—I’d say they were poetic descriptions, or spiritual descriptions, of what it was like to be in a meditative state. And now you could begin to say, “Well, when one is in a deep, contemplative, focused attentional state, and really concentrated, it turns out that there’s an area of the brain called the interior cingulate, which is in the frontal midportion of the brain on the mesial side of each hemisphere, there’s a place in the brain that lights up and becomes more active. And so we begin to see that there’s an anatomy to this.
We’ve also begun to look at ways perhaps of even inducing states that you otherwise might not think would have an anatomical correlate. For example, the out-of-body experience can be actually induced with a transcranial magnetic stimulator placed over the skull just above and behind the right ear.
Tami Simon: OK, so slow down a minute. What’s a transcranial magnetic stimulator?
Rick Mendius: Because the brain is an electrical organ, because electricity and magnetism have this reciprocal relationship in physics, there’s then the anatomic structure of the nervous system, there’s these long axons and dendrites. So you have basically long electrical cells, which have certain particular orientations that can induce a little bit of a magnetic field. So you can both detect the magnetic signal from a bunch of nerve cells firing in unison, and you can reversibly by stimulating them with a magnetic pulse, you know, like a big electrical magnet sitting on the outside of the head, you can reciprocally stimulate these neurons to fire off as if they’ve been electrically stimulated.
Tami Simon: So you could take some kind of device— What would it look like to stimulate an out-of-body state?
Rick Mendius: Well, it looks a bit like a small C-clamp, so it passes the magnetic current from one pole of the magnet to the other, and that current goes through the skull, through the brain, activates a particular set of neurons, which fire off. And because they fire off, they stimulate their own electrical connections throughout the brain, and the brain has then an electrical experience, which it then has to make sense of. It then has to fit what just happened electrically inside the skull into something that the brain can put together as a hypothetical construct that fits the stimulus.
See, the brain is always doing that. The brain is always running simulations on your sensory input. So it is creating a simulation of whatever you’re looking at at the moment. It’s creating an electrical simulation of whatever you’re feeling at the moment. It’s creating an electrical simulation of what you are smelling, what you are tasting, what your touch is from various portions of your body, coupled with memory, coupled with other kind of autonomic basic survival states. All of this is happening simultaneously, and the brain is always putting them together, and then one little piece of that is what you are paying attention to at right this second.
So it’s possible to use a magnetic stimulator to evoke a particular state, to alter whatever is up for the brain at that moment, to pick out of all the potential electrical circuits and memories and thoughts and fantasies and all kinds of other experiences that it’s possible for the brain— It’s possible to take a transcutaneous magnetic stimulator, pass a magnetic current into the brain, and cause that brain to select a different kind of experience.
And it was discovered about five to six years ago, when people would put this over a piece of cortex called the angular gyrus, which is a place at the junction of the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes back— Basically in anybody’s head, there’s one above the right ear and one above the left ear, sort of straight in about a centimeter, that when they put it over the right angular gyrus, people have an out-of-body experience. They would feel themselves separated from their personal body container, up and out somewhere. So this is something that of course has been experienced by countless individuals in various different states, some of them pharmacologically or drug induced, some of them induced by various meditative and contemplative practices, some of them perhaps even— There’s sort of an interesting parallel to some of the sense of being separate from oneself and at one with the universe that one gets in Sufi movement meditation. So there’s all of these things that it appears that some of the electrical experiences of the brain can be translated into spiritual experiences, and vice versa. So there gets to be more into— To sort of bring this back to the initial question of neurodharma, we’re in an incredibly exciting time for both spiritual practitioners and for neuroscientists where we begin to be able to say what circuits of the brain are helping to support these spiritual experiences.
And obviously in this there’s always the potential error of being reductionistic, of saying, well, if you’re having that experience, if you’re six feet over your body looking down, then it’s reduced to, “That’s actually the electrical circuit in your right angular gyrus firing off.” But there’s another question, another way to flip this around and ask it from the dharmic question of, “Isn’t it interesting that for no real clear reason, a central nervous system was equipped to generate an experience with a definite spiritual, deep, emotional, personal meaning to it?” It’s not necessarily required for an organism to walk around, drive, get food out of the refrigerator, procreate, and do all the other things that we sort of think of as just standard, normal life. So that question can be asked from both directions.
For me, the neurodharma piece and the fact that neurology and neuroscience is beginning to really find substrates for these experiences, really speaks to faith. It really speaks to the idea that the experiences that are talked about in all of the various literatures and all the various spiritual traditions, not just necessarily Buddhism—Vipassana Buddhism is the practice that I am most comfortable in—but in all the other spiritual traditions as well, there appears to be a basic, human anatomy that supports these. And therefore these experiences that one might not necessarily think to be true, like an out-of-body experience, that there is an anatomy that supports that.
So that leads me sort of logically to the following statement, which is that if these supposedly mystical experiences can be shown to have a biologic truth, then the conclusions from these mystical experiences, such as the oneness of all things, the impermanence of all things, the conditionality of all things, and you can just follow how this will lead in various different traditions, that those conclusions also have a truth to them, that before, a hundred years ago, scientists who were focused on purely the physical or biologic sciences, would say, “Nah, nothing. That’s just all poetry.”
Tami Simon: So you’re saying that you have a greater sense of faith, because if there’s an anatomical support for an experience, then the experience is validated in some way in your mind?
Rick Mendius: That’s right. And so the mystical experience of oneness with everything has an anatomy to it, has a physiology to it, that suggests that when you see this in a practitioner who can validly and reproducibly attain those states, then you can picture the physiology and the anatomy of that practitioner. And you find that it’s reproducible, that you find that nuns in contemplative prayer practice have a very similar neurophysiology, that Tibetan monastics in shamata practice have a very similar neurophysiology, you begin to say, “Ah!” It does two things: it has both a support for each one of those practices, so contemplative prayer has a valid underpinning to say it’s actually true, and it has this anatomy and the experiences of those people doing that prayer are validated by that anatomy. Shamata practice has this anatomy, and it validates the reported experiences of the people engaged in shamata practice.
So it does two things for me that are kind of fun. It both validates the individual doctrine, the individual practices, and it has this whole ecumenical thing, which is true for all human beings. This is a characteristic of being a forty-six chromosome, XY species. This is what is the right of our DNA to have this experience. And it basically transcends doctrine, it transcends any one specific religion. It says there are ten thousand ways up the mountain, but the mountain is the same mountain.
Tami Simon: Now, let’s track back for a moment to the fact that we could stimulate part of the brain and have an out-of-body experience. Is there a way that I can create that kind of stimulation without an electrostimulator? I mean, what natural way could I create that same stimulation of that anatomy of the brain?
Rick Mendius: I think those experiences occur somewhat spontaneously in states of deep meditative practice. If you look at the, I think it’s a work of Mayberg’s that’s about eight, nine years, who did this work on functional MRI scans with Tibetan monastics and also with the, I believe it’s the Carmelite nuns who do the contemplative prayer. When they came to a sort of sense of union, there was this sense of unification with the universe, there was a loss of boundary condition between where my body stops and other space starts, so there was a loss of boundary between self and the universe, and there was also a loss of location. It’s impossible for people as they talk about it, it’s impossible for people to know where they are.
See, right now you have the sense of being in the studio and I have the sense of being here in my office, and we sort of have a sense about the physical sense of the relationship of these two offices on the planet, and we kind of do this little right hemispheric thing of figuring out where we are on the map. Supposed that’s to disappear, and you were not to be absolutely sure where you are on the map. So here we are in this deep meditative state: we have lost the boundary between self and the universe, and we’ve lost our localization within the universe. The brain takes those two conditions and comes up with a conclusion of one, I am at one with everything and I am throughout the universe; there is no location of me in space and time. That’s the brain’s interpretation of that electrical state, because it no longer has a self-object boundary, and it no longer has location in time or space. So it’s possible in these very deep meditative states to attain these conditions. And it’s interesting that you could take somebody who’s not in a deep state of meditation, do a magnetic stimulation and give them that experience. These were people who were meditatively naïve, they were not seeking these states all the time. But they would have the sense of spontaneous event. So that says to me that in the meditative practice, you can do these things by getting into very deep states of focused concentration.
And then we do this in another way and say, OK, when we just electrically stimulate a certain piece of the brain, something that otherwise takes a good number of hours on the cushion and a great deal of meditative focus and skill to attain occurs. You follow me?
Tami Simon: I do, yes.
Rick Mendius: OK. And I think one of the things I kind of want to state here is that the thing of being at one with the universe and the thing of losing the boundary and losing the location, in a sense it’s kind of a yogic containment. It’s not actually the focus of what in my view is true meditative practice, which is the relief of suffering.
Tami Simon: Yeah.
Rick Mendius: And it’s sort of, a lot of people get caught up in the epiphenomena, and I think this sort of oneness with everything is to some extent an epiphenomenon; it’s something to be realized and then moved past. But it’s helpful to know that the conditions for that exist, because then it says that all these other things that you might otherwise think is impossible, as in really potentially being able to reach enlightenment in this very life kind of concept, that getting to that point is possible, because the road map was laid out and it was said, these little epiphenomena will happen to you along the path, and they are to be observed, they’re to be noted, they’re to be abandoned, and you are to move on. So that’s what I’m saying, for me the fact that we can do this in a laboratory setting with people who are nonmeditators is very strong support for the path as it is written by people who have gone all the way to the end.
Tami Simon: Now Rick, I’m going to take a weird tangent here for a moment, but stick with me. Which is, for people who have had an experience with a psychoactive drug like LSD or something like that, they saw unbelievable capacities of their brain in that state, but it didn’t necessarily give us as a culture “faith” that those kinds of open experiences were legitimate; it’s was just,”Oh, those are legitimate under the influence of a drug.” So I’m curious that this is different now, because we’re in scientific laboratories, we’re testing things, we have print outs. What do you think is the difference in our kind of collective knowing now because of these developments in neurology?
Rick Mendius: I think because of a couple things. One is that these are, as opposed to listening to the report of the individual coming back from a pharmacologic condition, where you’re dependant on self-report and you are looking at what it was like to be under the influence of lysergic acid diethylamide or mescaline or ayahuasca or any of the other pharmacopeia that we use, we’re listening to a personal report.
Tami Simon: Yeah.
Rick Mendius: Personal report to some extent is always suspect. What it was like for you. It’s always subject to kind of the Rashomon phenomenon of you’re looking at an event from six different people, and you get six different stories. And here we’re looking at something that’s independent—when you’re looking at a functional MRI image, or when you’re looking at the EEG correlates or higher cognitive function that we’re now beginning to see in terms of coherent studies, and the development of various different frequencies and synchronicities between certain parts of the brain.
When you’re looking at that, you can have one person who’s the experimental subject, and two or three people who are looking and seeing the same set of data; the two or three people can look at that data set, “Yeah, that’s there!” So you now have relative replicability, you have relative noninvasive mechanisms of observing what’s happening in the brain, and you have ways that for the most part don’t result in significant toxicity. I mean, when you look at the LSD experience, there are a number of people not only had bad trips, they developed flashbacks, there were a number of people who developed psychotic processes in this, so there’s another flavor to this, which is not only is there the individual who reported the experience, but you also have something that clearly has significant downside risk. So is the LSD an experience, a statement of the true nature of the brain, or is the LSD experience a statement about what happens to the brain on a poison? And you can make that conclusion that if somebody doesn’t come back from the experience, that you’re completely altered their brain, what you have done is that you have poisoned that brain from its predrug state to a postdrug state, which may or may not be a successful way to live in the world. And a number of the people where you put them in an LSD experience, for example, they’re processes led to hospitalization and to dysfunction, which is totally the opposite of the aim of meditative practice, which is greater clarity, greater understanding, a more effective, compassionate way of dealing with the world. So that I think to me is the different flavor of this.
Tami: That’s very helpful, very clear. Now, we’re talked some about what happens to the brain when people are in deep meditation. I’m curious what we know, what we’ve discovered in the last decade, decade and a half, about happiness and the brain. And I know this is an area that you’ve studied quite a bit. What do we know about happiness, and how can we increase our happiness from a brain-chemistry standpoint?
Rick Mendius: A couple of things come to mind. I think first off you kind of have to, you have to literally almost have to start from a Buddhist frame, that you have to see through to the truth of suffering or stress, however way you want to translate the word dukkha. And letting go of those things that continue to grab you and force you to realize that you are not where you want to be. And realizing that even that desire of wanting to be somewhere is something that you have to let go of. So that what I see in the neuroscience world is an understanding that the brain is always wanting something.
The sort of way that I look at it goes all the way back down even to the single-cell organism and to the maintenance of a multicell organism in some living state. There’s a process called homeostasis that occurs in the human body where you basically try to maintain the concentration of electrolytes like sodium and potassium and chloride and calcium and magnesium; you try to maintain the pH chemistry of the body, you try to maintain the oxygenation of the blood, you try to maintain the hormone levels of various things. It’s all sort of housekeeping maintenance functions, to which a lot of the organism is always trying to do. The same is true of the single-celled organisms, interestingly enough; the bacterium is always trying to move toward sources of nutrients and move away from toxins, is always trying to seek out things and move away from things. So there’s this really basic, basic, fundamental law.
And if you think about homeostasis, that you’re never really in a state of complete rest, you’re always trying to push it a little this way to the left, you’re trying to push it a little this way to the right, you’re trying to lift it up from the floor, you’re trying to keep it down from the ceiling, and trying to keep it within your normal living space, that that function is actually accompanied by some kind of fundamental biologic cellular sense of stress. And that for me, looking at that is one of the insights that really again sort of spoke to the truth of the first noble truth of suffering being a condition of existence. Basically you’re always trying to balance on the top of the pin and trying to keep yourself from falling off, and so there’s this real energy that always has to go into maintenance function.
And in terms of pursuing happiness, that’s where you start. You say, “Wow, I need to understand that for me to really experience happiness, the first thing that I have to do is to, in a sense, get rid of the underlying sense of stress or need to be elsewhere. And that’s accomplished through a number of different ways. First off, we tend to generalize that need into activity after activity after activity; we’re always chasing, chasing, chasing, chasing, and oftentimes we don’t let ourselves even for a brief moment seize on the fact that right now, things are pretty OK. You know, I’m sitting here, I’m warm enough, I’m cool enough, I’m well enough fed, I’m rested enough, I’m excited enough, I’m relaxed enough. For just this right moment.
Tami Simon: That’s true, Rick. We’re both in a pretty sweet situation right now, sitting in these chairs, having this conversation. But aren’t my cells still moving toward and moving away and experiencing that stress at the cellular level?
Rick Mendius: Yes.
Tami Simon: But I’m not interpreting it as stress necessarily? I don’t have to?
Rick Mendius: You don’t need to take it and to create a story about it. There’s going to be some fundamental level of stress that is this characteristic of being an organism that’s alive and breathing. And so you put that together with some of the stuff that my partner in the Wellspring Institute, Rick Hanson, and I have been talking about in our daylongs, which is based to some extent on some of the major truths of positive psychology, is creating that image in your head that things are OK enough to relax. That your organism is adequately primed to take care of itself, that you don’t need to add a whole lot of anxious story of “I gotta do this, I gotta do that, I gotta get this other thing, I forgot this, I gotta do this”—that whole rap that goes on in our heads about all the tasks that are done and undone and the problems we need to solve before tomorrow morning or next week or all these deadlines coming up.
And there’s lots and lots and lots of literature in the psychology and in endocrine function and even in the immune function that speaks to the strength of relaxation into whatever what’s happening right now as a way to alleviate adding to whatever stress is happening just because of your immediate situation. The problem that most of us have is that when we run our memory circuits and begin to sort of do repetitive rifts on what’s wrong and how I’m going to solve it, is that we begin to stimulate the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and the stress response. And when you do that constantly, you actually increase sort of resting serum cortisol levels in your bloodstream. And cortisol steroid, which is an important hormone; it helps us to minimize inflammation and it helps with healing and decreases a number of bad things that happen when you have to respond to an environmental stress like an infection—so steroids are useful. But chronic, unremitting stress and unremitting production of cortisol and elevated cortisol levels in the blood actually is toxic to neurons.
You can see this best in people for example who’ve either had PTSD or who have been the victims of torture, where you actually see hippocampal atrophy. And when we look at MRI studies going back ten, fifteen years of people who have been in various kinds of horrific experiences, and you look at the hippocampus in their temporal lobes, you can see that it’s shrunk. Now, hippocampus is important because that’s basically your resting, working memory. It’s kind of like your brain’s very own RAM, your Random Access Memory; that’s how you get things up in working memory to be able to process it. And when you see visible atrophy on an MRI scan, you’re talking about the loss of millions of neurons. So this constant, repetitive activation of the HPA access, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, constant activation of this HPA access, is actually toxic to brain.
So you reverse engineer it, from the standpoint of how you apply this in your own life as a way to be happier. You say, “OK, I need to stop telling stories. I need to stop repetitively traumatizing myself with the stress of my deadlines, the stress of my finances, the stress of the loss of my loved ones, or the anger that I’m experiencing, all of these other different things.” And just by creating space for it’s OK for those things to just be and not to have to do anything about it, you can literally save yourself the loss of millions upon millions of neurons, and over time increase your ability to function.
Tami Simon: Let’s just talk about that for a moment. Do I have a set amount of neurons? Do I care about losing them? Can I make new ones?
Rick Mendius: The truth on that one, we know that, we used to think that the brain, that at the moment of birth you had all the neurons you were gonna get and that was it. And we know for certain that there are areas in the brain where there still continues to be new neurons formed over a period of time. One of the areas is the hippocampus, they’re called the granule cells, appear to reproduce, and we make new ones over a period of time. Interestingly enough, we appear to turn these cells over perhaps on the order of every seven years, which we have this cultural thing about the seven-year itch, and sort of developmental changes that happen on sort of a seven to ten year cycle throughout our life, and that may have some relationship with how these neurons that are responsible for how I am remembering things change over. But we don’t replace these neurons as fast as we lose them. So there is over your lifetime a loss of neuronal numbers and of the processes of each individual neuron.
And that actually is where I think the modern neuroimaging shows that there’s completely different benefit to meditation. When you do a task, you tend to increase the amount and volume of brain tissue that’s devoted to that task. The numbers of cortical neurons in concert pianists that are devoted to the control and programming of the sequence of activation of the muscles that move the fingers, the amount of cortical real estate in the brain that’s devoted to that activity in concert pianists is tremendously greater certainly than in me, because I can do “Chopsticks” and that’s about it. So concert pianists have a lot more versatility in the kinds of quality of finger movements that they can make in the context of playing the piano.
So we think that that which you pay attention to, that which you discipline yourself to do, that which you continue to come back to, you get more neuronal real-estate devoted to that, and a greater thickening and numbers of connections and interconnections between neurons. You get a great proliferation of what we call the dendrites, in the big motor neurons and interneurons that connect each other up, so that there’s a lot more subtlety in the communication between all of these different levels of cells. When you look at the scans of people like that, there is over time a thickening of the cortex of the brain in these regions. And there is in meditators in a number of different areas in the brain, insular cortex, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and frontal lobe, there is thickening of the cortical rim. Now that’s where nerve cells and the dendrites exist. The white matter in the brain is where all the big wires that go from one piece of the brain to another piece of the brain occur. But where all the connectivity action is is in the grey matter. That’s where all the electrical conversations happen between nerve cell and nerve cell. And so for there to be a thickening in that cortex means that there’s a lot more processing going on. People who are long-term meditators tend to have as much as a millimeter-thicker cortex in many of these regions. That’s immense. That is just an incredible amount of increased connectivity and subtlety in the performance of these brains in their ability to, say, make fine distinctions.
Interestingly, if you talk to some of the monastics who spend lots and lots of time in meditation and lots and lots of time in terms of really disciplining their lives to be on the path, they start to be much more sensitive to fine distinctions in what’s right speech and what’s not right speech, to what’s right intention and what’s not right intention. And they describe that it’s very easy to eliminate some of the really gross things; it’s not OK to rob, murder, steal, and pillage. But as they get further and further into it, they discover that you have to do some subtle stuff. It’s not OK to even think minimally disparagingly of your associate because they then begin to see how this leads to incorrect speech, incorrect action with bad consequences. And this is sort of a corollary of that; you begin to see as you devote your brain to these practices, you begin to get subtler and subtler and subtler ability to distinguish between kinds of thoughts, kinds of actions, kinds of perceptions, kinds of simulations, what is real, what is not. So there’s a whole development of discipline that’s associated with thickening in the areas of the brain.
So there’s actually I think a tremendous way in which there’s a much greater help in the brains of people who are really disciplined in the spiritual path that over time as they really get into these practices, particularly I think of mindfulness and compassion, based in a way of getting around the HPA axis with what I would say would be equanimity practice, the sort of mindfulness, compassionate—
Tami Simon: What did you mean “getting around the HPA axis? I lost you there.
Rick Mendius: I’m sorry. I was going back to our previous conversation about the stress factor of when you’re trying to alleviate suffering. If you’re just dealing with that in your own personal space, it’s getting more space around the story. And most of that is actually, if you think about it, is equanimity. You know, “This is just the way it is. OK, I have preferences for the way things are, but you know, and I have some needs like oxygen, water, food, but my wants are maybe not necessarily something I want to cling to if I find that those wants generate suffering.” So that’s basically, getting to that is really focusing on equanimity, is really focusing on releasing clutching at wanting to be someplace else.
So anyway, people who practice this sort of mindfulness and compassionate equanimity, I think the bottom line for my last few minutes has been, I think these people are headed in a way of really optimizing their brain health. And ultimately, to bring us back to I think two or three questions ago, ultimately this is how you generate happiness. This is how you generate a state of actually very, very profound happiness.
Tami Simon: What I’m curious about is, what does a happy brain look like? I mean, one thing you said is that I wouldn’t be generating a lot of unnecessary cortisol, which would be destroying neurons, but what else would a happy brain look like?
Rick Mendius: Wow, I’m not sure I can make a real good—
Tami Simon: What parts of my brain would be easily lit up, what kinds of chemistry—
Rick Mendius: If I had to reach, and I don’t think there’s a whole lot of science for me to say on this one because I’m not 100 percent sure of this, but if I were to speculate, I would say that a happy brain would have relative quiescence in the amygdala, which are two areas in the front of the temporal lobes, one on the left and one on the right, and a relative increased activity in the anterior cingulate area of the brain and in the insula. And that these—
Tami Simon: What is the insula?
Rick Mendius: I’ll get to that in a second. The amygdala, which is the Latin word for almond, it’s an almond-shaped structure, it’s at the front inside end of the temporal lobes; there’s one on the left and one on the right. This is a structure that’s really involved in attaching emotional affect to memory. When you have an experience, the emotional valence of that experience, positive, negative, or neutral, is laying down on top of that experience by activity in the amygdala. And the amygdala is extraordinarily wired, perhaps two-thirds, 70 percent of it or so, is wired for negative statements: “This is awful, this is evil, this is nasty, I need to avoid this, I need to run away from this, I need to be angry about this.” And only about 30 percent: “This is wonderful, this is great, I like this.” So the amygdala tends to be a lot more of a negative labeling for experience.
There’s a real good evolutionary reason for that, which is that if you jump from a curved—this is the old classic—if you jump from a curved shape on the trail, and if you jump the other way and it turns out to be a stick, then everybody laughs and has a good time. If it turns out to be a snake, then you survived to carry on, procreate, and have further offspring, and have a greater proportion of your chromosomal DNA in subsequent generations. So actually in the world in which we evolved as a species, it was much more important to note the negatives, real quick, real time, now, then it was necessarily to note the positives, because the positives might be there just a little bit longer, and you could actually look and enjoy them and inspect them before you took them. Whereas if the snake or the leopard gets you, you’re gone. So the amygdala is really wired for negative stuff. So a happy brain would tend to have less amygdala activation.
The second thing is that a happy brain would tend to have more, I think the anterior cingulate would be more active than the rest of the frontal lobes, because that area’s kind of the witness; it’s just watching when things are happening. And the anterior cingulate is kind of the monitor for how well you’re on task, and it has a reward circuit down into the brain stem that’s run on norepinephrine, and the norepinephrine experience—norepinephrine is one of the main neurochemicals in the brain—the norepinephrine experience is sort of a bright, alert, and cheerful quality. So a sort of brightening of the mind that happens when norepinephrine is happening.
And then the insula, to go back to the third piece, is the area that’s sort of the cortical representation of internal states. And it is also the area where I think we have not really mirror neurons, because we’re not really sure if mirror neurons truly exist in humans, but I think we have mirror-neuron circuits, and these are circuits that will light up when we observe somebody else doing an activity, and they are neurons that also participate when we do that activity. So if you see somebody throwing a ball, the mirror-neuron circuits in your brain will be those that are also involved when you throw a ball. When we see someone smiling happily at us, those mirror-neuron circuits are also activated during periods when we smile happily. So there’s a fundamental cortical construct for an empathic understanding, a true understanding in me of what you are experiencing. That’s why I think a happy brain will have more of that sense of empathy up and active.
And then there’s this other really interesting thing, which is if you look at which portions of the brain tend to be happier, it turns out interestingly that the left frontal lobe is actually a fairly happy place. When you have a stroke that involves the left frontal lobe, and I’m going to talk classically in a right-handed individual for whom language is in the left hemisphere, when you have a stroke involving the left frontal lobe, these people tend to have a much more disastrous sense of what happened than people who have strokes in the right frontal lobe. People who have strokes in the right frontal lobe tend to be relatively comfortable with events, even if they have equal motor disability, they’re able to overcome it.
Now think back to that: what you’ve taken out is a piece of brain, the piece of brain that’s gone is not what’s running the show at that point. It’s the piece of brain that remains. So somebody whose left frontal lobe was tending to be running more of the frontal lobe actions—you know, the planning and thinking about things—somebody who’s left frontal lobe is running things, it tends to be a little more content with events than somebody whose right frontal lobe is running things. So you’re going to have a little bit more left frontal activation in terms of what portions of the brain are running in a happier person, which is in contradistinction with what’s out in the popular literature for the last twenty years or so, you know, drawing with the right side of the brain; somehow the right side of the brain was the more Gestaltic and happier. Turns out that the right side of the brain is kind of morose, when that’s what’s up and running.
Tami Simon: Well, this is a lot of information for my little brain to absorb, but the one thing that I am hooking onto here is the idea that in our amygdala, we are evolutionarily programmed to have a bias toward negativity?
Rick Mendius: Right.
Tami Simon: That makes sense to me. I’m always looking at the negative in everything. How do I interrupt that?
Rick Mendius: Repetitive practice at realizing that that’s not necessarily the story. I think the other piece for me in sort of the neurodharma thing, and really a statement of faith, is that if you look how the brain activates to a stimulus, in the wheel of dependent origination, there’s this whole thing about contact-feeling-craving. That there’s the contact between the environment and the organism and the individual; there is the arising of a feeling in relationship to that contact; and then from that feeling, craving arises—aversion, craving, avoidance, or whatever. And if you watch what happens anatomically as a stimulus moves through the central nervous system, you can actually see that’s there’s a substrate from this.
So let’s go back to the amygdala and visual stimuli. When you have that experience of the snake, it turn out that there will be emotional reactivity to a visual stimulus that will arise before the cortex has processed the stimulus to decide what it actually is, before you have identified the shape and labeled it and called it a name. Those are several different things. So what happens, we think, is that some of the electrical fibers that are headed back from the eyeball, through the optic nerve and then headed back to the occipital lobe in the back of your head to be processed into vision, some of those fibers have collaterals that bypass into the amygdala. So that if this is a threat stimulus or if this is a target stimulus of opportunity, that wiring to jump away or jump toward, that wiring begins to be prepared to act, because the amygdala has identified this as a fear response. It’s beginning to send out an alarm, and that’s going up to the cortex, and then beginning to be acted on. And that happens almost before one is cortically aware of what this visual stimulus is that’s just been presented. And there’s various different ways this has been identified in terms of [[testitocophically?]] presenting a visual stimulus that’s happening so brief it can’t be named, and yet you still have an emotional response to it. Things like that. They’ve done various different ways of looking at this anatomy and kind of parsing it out.
So how does one go and reverse engineer this so you can be happier?
Tami Simon: Yeah.
Rick Mendius: I think it’s by continually developing a conditional frame of mind, so that you’re continually saying, “OK, this appears to be so, let me check it out. This appears to be so, let me check it out.” As an emotional response begins to arise, you develop the habit of “Let me check out why that’s happening. What’s going on here that’s causing that to arise?” So it’s basically a classic mindfulness practice, dissecting out while the emotions are arising why they are arising, what’s the flavor of them, why is this happening in my knee at this point in time, what’s going on in my left hand, what’s the smell about this, how’s my hearing—this whole kind of dissection practice that we begin to do as we start to meditate. And as you do that, as you form that habit, and as each stimulus, as each emotional thing arises, the brain habitually says, “Let me dissect this out and find out if this is true. If this is true, what are the causes and conditions that led this to arise at this moment in time in me? And furthermore, what are the various opportunities that present themselves for action here to respond to the stimulus in alignment with my major moral and ethical precepts?”
Most of the time in our mundane lives until we undertake such spiritual practice or meditative practice, we really, the old classic cliché, we live our lives by “Ready, fire, aim!” So we’ve already responded before we’ve figured out what the hell target we’re trying to shoot at. And I think what you can do to disconnect the amygdala is habitually go back in there and put in “Aim,” put in “Aim,” put in “Aim,” and then put in “Ready, question!”, “Ready, question!”, “Ready, question!” You see, you sort of back-engineer the habit; you reverse-engineer the habit so you begin to be more sensitive to the moment of the arising of the emotion so you can then engage the habitual reflection, so that you can bring yourself to analyze the data as they’re presenting so you can just ask yourself, “Is this true, and if so, do I need to do anything about it?” And that will ultimately, it may not necessarily disconnect the amygdala— I’m not sure you want to disconnect the amygdala! Sometimes that curved shadow on the path is a snake. And you need to know it’s a snake. But you need not necessarily jump off the cliff to avoid the snake. So you can say, “Oop! Oh, what is this? OK.”
And just as in any particular cognitive function, by continual, continual use, you can develop a stronger and stronger habitual ability to be more precise in your distinctions about what’s happening in your life, and to be more compassionate and less attached to self in relationship to what’s happening in your life. And this ultimately makes you happier, and I think there is a fundamental neuroanatomy under there that the brain is handling amygdala input in a different way. It learns that a discharge from the amygdala needs to bring lots of cortical resources to bear to be very precise about what one is perceiving, and other cortical resources in terms of what one’s actions, and there’s literally a neuroanatomy wiring to that, which can be practiced and practiced and practiced.
I think the other thought that comes to mind to me at this point is the whole concept of about ten thousand hours: that to be a world-class anything takes about ten thousand hours, in terms of when they look at athletes, when they look at pianists and other musicians, when they look at people who are meditative adepts. And ten thousand hours, if you think about it—a thousand hours is about two and a half to three hours a day for a year. So you’re talking ten years at two and a half to three hours a day to be a world-class meditator. This makes sense, because a number of the people that they were testing, Mayberg and these other people who were looking at these really world-class meditators, the gurus and the very adept monastics, when you kind of get the number of hours that these people have spent on the cushion, you have twenty thousand, fifty thousand, seventy thousand lifetime meditative hours. That’s an immense amount of time spent perfecting this.
Tami Simon: You’re saying at the point of approximately ten thousand hours, something special happens in the brain?
Rick Mendius: Well, at the present time, something we can distinguish in terms of—even our present imaging systems of the brain are still relatively gross. They’re still not telling us what’s really happening below maybe a few millimeters of volumes of tissue. They’re not telling us what’s happening in small numbers of neurons, they’re telling us what’s happening in millions of neurons acting together. So we’re not talking about a whole lot of fine detail. We’re still— It’s like looking at a map of the United States from twenty thousand miles: you’re not down at one hundred feet above the street. You’re way up there, and you’re still able to say, “Well, there are mountains, there are rivers, there’s this and that.” We’re still really in our, I think neuroscience is still really in our, maybe not our infancy, but certainly in its mid to late childhood in terms of our ability to understand how this whole system comes together. And I think we will get further and further and further and further adept in doing this as neuroscience gets better tools, more integrated tools, and begins to expand what we presently know and develop better paradigms for how this stuff works. The people that they have used for the present tests that we have are these people who have had tens of thousands of hours of practice, and that creates the kind of changes that we can see with the testing that we have.
Now, let me go back, because we also know another couple things about how the human body functions, and I think that there’s a parallel here. There’s a classic cliché called the 80-20 rule: that 80 percent of what you need to do takes 20 percent of your effort. The other 20 percent of what you need to do takes 80 percent of your effort. If you’re trying to do aerobic conditioning of your heart, the first 20 percent of your exercise program in terms of your— Say you wanted to run a marathon. The amount of conditioning that you really need to do to run a marathon, about 80 percent of that will happen 20 percent into your training program. The other 80 percent of your training program is getting that other 20 percent. You actually in terms of long-term health effects, that 80 percent that you get with minimal effort is enough to give you another extra several years of life, from the standpoint of minimizing your heart attack risk or your stroke risk or your peripheral vascular disease. As a physician and neurologist, when I tell people to go out and get some exercise to minimize their stroke risk, I talk about a half hour a day. I’m not telling them to go out and do four hours of biking a day, or develop their ability to run for four straight hours. I’m telling them to go out and walk at a relatively vigorous pace for thirty minutes. That’s 20 percent of what it would take to run a marathon, but it’s got 80 percent of the health benefit in it.
So I think I want to take that analogy and bring it back to sort of a neurodharma perspective, that I think you get a long way down the path with what is a relatively small use of time, that there is the sort of wonderful, miraculous way that our brains can actually be directed in a positive spiritual direction without requiring the entire culture to go into a monastery. And I think that’s the bottom line in all this is that it’s quite possible to engage in these practices as a householder, as somebody who has a mortgage, a tax bill, children, a spouse, in-laws, parents.
Tami Simon: Let’s certainly hope so!
Rick Mendius: Yeah, right. That the householder path has validity, and that in pursuing the same practices in what time and space that’s available to a householder with all the other demands on their lives, has tremendous benefits for themselves.
Tami Simon: Now, Rick, do we know anything from neurodharma studies about the difference between male and female brains, especially in relationship to the spiritual path, spiritual practice?
Rick Mendius: Not enough to make really great conclusions, except perhaps for one. There’s such a tremendous overlap that you could even have the populations have statistically significant differences in the levels of function in a certain way, and yet have tremendous populations of males who would really fit in the female processing realm, and a tremendous number of females who would fit into the male processing realm. So I think that we really, really love to hunt for these dichotic divisions of stuff, because it’s an easy way for us to divide the world into black and white, into top and bottom, male and female, positive and negative, but the truth is much grayer, and much more individual. And so it’s probably not useful for any one individual to define a male spiritual path versus a female spiritual path, even given the fact that the male and female energies are tremendously important in that attainment. Anybody who’s looked at tantra understands that. And the whole masculine-feminine dyad, and the whole influence of sexuality in a nonprocreative sense, but just the whole way males and females see the world and process the world adds a lot of richness to it.
But the problem is that any one individual, going from a statistical division of populations to any one individual person, is going to be fraught with error, because the male genetic influence, for example, will find itself inside genes that for personality structure come from his mother, so that—and the female correspondingly, will find her hormonal influences in the cycle of menstruation and the menarche and menopause and all the rest of the very complicated things that happen there, will find that encased inside a nervous system that’s significantly constructed with genes that came from not only her father, but her mother’s father. So which genes are responsible in how those manifest in the neurostructures? It becomes very, very, very difficult to parse out. And so most of these conclusions have to be said that this appears to be the differences we can discern.
So with that caveat at the beginning, it’s probably safe to say that males will tend to be much more linear in their approach, and females will tend to be much more cyclical and encompassing, mostly because if you go back to the endochrinologic effects, the secretion of testosterone and whatever influence that has on the male brain, is a major increase during puberty, and then a gradual decline down through adulthood to old age, and that I think has a very slow pattern to it over time. Human beings are not very good at detecting subtle, small changes. So as a fifty-nine-year-old male, I can look back and say I don’t have the same sexual thoughts every thirty seconds that I had when I was twenty, but I can see the decline and I can feel the emotional change in terms of how I function over time. I think most males in middle age and geriatric populations would be able to personally reflect and report that a similar kind of sense of how things gradually declined.
I think for women there’s a much different way in which the emotions kind of flow through their lives, and would therefore flow through their spiritual practice. Estrogen is a very excitatory hormone for the brain. Progesterone is a relatively sedating hormone to the brain. There are tremendous estrogen receptors in the hippocampus, in this memory organ, so there’s to some extent a cyclic variability in memory functions as a result of the cycles during menstruation, including the premenstrual tension syndrome and subsequently the increase in estrogen for the first twelve to fourteen days, a spike in estrogen-progesterone at the time of ovulation, the relative progesterone production over estrogen in the last half of the cycle, and then a drop in both estrogen and progesterone, and a reversal from a progesterone to a estrogen chemical bath, if you will, immediately prior to menstruation. That happens every twenty-eight days, as we know. And so I think there’s much more of a sense of flexibility for women because they literally have a flexibility in how their nervous system is processing information based on these underlying hormonal states.
So I think from the spirituality and spiritual practice standpoint— My flavor in the women that I have heard give dharma talks is that they tend to be more inclusive, and more of all of the kind of different ways that the world can be. And the approach from most of the male teachers tended to have sort of a Manjushri cutting through to the truth kind of, if you’ll pardon the term, kind of a machoness to the practice, that it really needs a discipline, discipline, discipline.
Tami Simon: Well, now here in the spirit of inclusiveness, I can imagine someone listening to our conversation, and there’s been a tremendous emphasis on how meditation improves brain functioning and happiness. I’m imagining somehow listening who says, “You know, I’m just not drawn to meditation. There’s got to be some way for me, isn’t there?”
Rick Mendius: That’s going to knock me off my pedestal here! I’ll have to think about this one. Because we’re talking about a spiritual path, I tend to think of meditation as a way. Most of the spiritual practices that I think bring out these pieces involve some form of meditation. So I think for me, I would include prayer in [the term] meditation. There also is the interesting thing that repetitive activities like drumming, I think walking practice, I think there’s even a way that you can even think of running as a meditation, cycling as a meditation. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that this has to be cushion time, that this many hours sitting on a zafu, but I think that there are ways that any activity that allows you, many of the functions behind this allows you to witness something going on.
Tami Simon: That’s very helpful.
Rick: So that for example running, when people talk about running and the runner’s high, I think it’s not just the endorphins that happen, but there’s also a piece where they are just witnessing their body moving. You know, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, step, breathe, and that rhythm begins to take over, they get into that rhythm, and then they’re just witnessing themselves getting into that rhythm. That may actually have side benefits that are very, very, very similar to meditation practice.
Meditation works for me because I’m a guy who spends his entire life thinking about brains, and so, and thinking about the diseases that happen in brains, so thinking for me is my door in. But this may not necessarily be true for somebody who’s not as enamored of thinking as I am, and who needs another path in. So I don’t necessarily feel that meditation is the be-all and end-all. But I think that there are ways, and without too much stretching about what I’ve been saying about meditation practice, one could take this same thing and expand it to [include] exercise as a practice or those other kinds of things.
There probably is also in the service practice, in seva, in the Hindu guru tradition of working for the guru, or in essentially the abandoning of the self in doing things. So for example, running or working at a food bank, volunteering some time at a food bank making sure that the hungry are fed. In doing these things that are really no longer about being acquisitive for self, and in giving to others as a practice, that in that piece there, which is not a meditation necessarily; it can be done as a meditation, but not as a meditation necessarily, but in that process of wrestling with “This is the other human being, this is myself, I am giving of my time and effort to this person, and I’m struggling with the fact that hey, maybe I’m hungry, but it’s not my time to eat, it’s their time to eat, I’m tired but there’s still people to feed, we’re still in the line”—those kinds of things. In wrestling with that, I think there’s a developing of a similar kind of awareness of the dissolution of the boundary between self and other.
Tami Simon: Very good, very helpful. One final question, Rick. You mentioned that this whole field of neurodharma we could say is like a child or something like that, clearly not a mature field at all. And what I’m curious about is, what do you see on the horizon? What kinds of inquiries are we asking, what kinds of research do you see? Where do you think we’ll be in the next five to ten years?
Rick Mendius: I think we’re actually on the boundary of beginning to talk about a Western practice of meditation that is grounded in our, I’ll use the phrase, in our religion of science, that is going to draw from the Eastern practices those things that appear to make sense in the context of Western, previously secular science. And we’re going to be able to say that for health and happiness and well-being of the individual and the community, the following practices would be best. I think that’s where we’re going to be going. And I think that we will have neurochemical evidence for it, I think we’ll have neuroanatomic, neurophysiologic evidence for it, I think we’ll have electrical evidence for it.
And I think that we’ll be able to understand some of the states that were observed and reported about in the Eastern traditions and even in the Christian tradition, the Christian mystic tradition, as Father Thomas Keating has gone and explored. I think that we’ll be able to understand that these previous self-reported states have anatomic corollaries, and therefore that the positive benefits of being a Father Thomas Keating, or the positive benefits of being a Buddha or being one of the arhats, or being a number of other Christian and Hindu and Muslim and Jewish mystics, that these are possible for us.
And it’s possible for us perhaps even by doing certain personality testing, and perhaps even doing some genetic testing, you might be able to understand, that we might be able to pick out for you as an individual the kinds of practices that would best move you the furthest down the road toward enlightenment. Because I think that some of this is going to have a basis in what kind of serotonin receptors you have, some of this is going to have a basis in your dopamine receptors, your endorphin receptors, your particular qualities of intellect, your social-psycho background, the kind of community and family that you grew up in. And there will be, there will start to get ways that you’ll begin to get a sense of, you know, “I don’t need to do shamata practice, it won’t work for me. I should do metta practice, or I should Christian contemplative prayer practice, or I should engage in Sufism, and in movement meditation, I should do yoga.” There will be ways where we will begin to start to parse this out.
Because if you go back and look at the monastic traditions, for instance in Buddhism, twenty-five hundred year tradition of, really, scientific observation. Everybody sat for a certain number of hours and then described their experiences: “Did you feel that? Oh, you saw that! Oh, this, that.” And this gets written down, time after time after time, and it’s actually— I think the Buddhist tradition of practice can be looked at in many ways as a scientific method of internal contemplation, and its successes, its possible risks, and its benefits, going backward. And I think we’ll be able to do the same thing, adding in genetics and neurochemistry and the fruits of psychological analysis, and begin to be able to say, to say for example at age twenty that you don’t need to go wandering in the desert thirty years; you can go over here and do this practice, and be much more effective at age thirty than you would otherwise be.
Tami Simon: Thank you, Rick, really helpful. Wonderful to be able to hear from someone with your kind of training.
Rick Mendius: Oh, thank you. This has been fun.
Tami Simon: Thank you so much.